86Night of the R-100
Jean-Claude Germain tells the story of how his aunt once found herself abandoned in a Montreal cow pasture one night in 1930.
A city dweller defines himself today by his smartphone, his condo, his townhouse, or his loft. There was a time when a Montrealer was proud of his stretch of the street, his attachment to a parish, the character of his neighbourhood, his parochialism East or West, or the cosmopolitanism of Saint Lawrence Boulevard. Only seasoned explorers could boast of having set foot on both ends of the island, or having scaled the two slopes of the “Mountain,” the everyday name for Mount Royal.
During the war and after, we lived in a time of horses, streetcars, and trolley buses, and to reach the four cardinal points on their island’s horizon, Montrealers still took trains. In day-to-day life, a Montreal pedestrian rarely covered more than the square mile surrounding his house, aside from the trip, often rather long, to and from his place of work. The wartime factories were for the most part on the city’s outskirts.
The urban population did not like straying far from its cement sidewalks, and would only bring itself to cross the city’s bridges for an important outing: the annual visit to relatives in the countryside, or the occupation of a summer cottage at vacation time. During the 1940s my aunts still spoke with great excitement about the visit of the R-100 fifteen or so years earlier.
On the morning of August 1, 1930, more than 40,000 automobiles set out in search of the airship, crossing—most for the first time—the Harbour Bridge. This was the administrative name Archbishop Gauthier had bestowed on it two months earlier, but the new span, under construction since 1925 and completed since December 1929, was already more widely referred to by the name the newspaper Le Devoir had chosen for it. The title “Jacques Cartier Bridge” would become ofﬁcial only in 1934.
On that morning the South Shore was under attack on two fronts. Ten thousand Montreal drivers had made the detour over the Victoria Bridge to add to the 40,000 arriving from the Jacques Cartier. All were heading towards the Saint-Hubert aerodrome, guided by the British “ﬂying watermelon” visible far off in the air, securely anchored to a 210-foot mast erected for the occasion. The presence of nearly a half-million people in the vicinity made for the ﬁrst monster trafﬁc jam of the century.
One of my aunts, thanks to her connections in the world of radio, was able to boast that she had taken the elevator as far up as the passenger gondola of the “great skyfish,” where, from an imperialist vantage point, she could look down on the crowd pushing and shoving at the foot of the mast. But the memory that marked her most was of the night following the visit, which she spent under the stars.
One week after the event, the country roads around Saint-Hubert were still littered with cars abandoned by their owners right where they had broken down. My aunts pretended, with the same false candour each time, not to know how it was that their sister Bée found herself abandoned and alone as well, in high heels, in a cow pasture, in the middle of the night.
“What on earth persuaded you to leave the car? Other than going to beaches and dance halls, you never liked nature!”
Bée, who was a city-girl spinster from head to toe, enjoyed reliving the night of the R-100 just as much as her sisters. With a twinkle in her eye that suggested things unspoken, she argued that “a coupe, that’s not made to lie down in!” She had therefore accepted her escort’s proposition and had stretched out with him at the foot of a tree to wait for the sun to rise.
“A lucky thing that we had a big woollen blanket because, you know, I’m afraid of ants.”
Usually worked into this part of the story was the incident on the beach at La Plage Idéale that featured the intrusion of red ants into her bathing costume.
To escape the trafﬁc jam, the two castaways had taken what seemed to them to be a shortcut. They had run out of gas, the water in the radiator had boiled away, and the vehicle had given up the ghost in the middle of the fields. In short, in the interests of more practical amorous arrangements, the automobile was taken out of service, to be replaced by what nature had to offer.
The gallant gentleman—whom everyone agreed was a “swell guy”—had removed his jacket and had slipped it over my aunt’s shoulders. Everything would have been dandy—with the two of them together under the starry dome—had a dark bush not suddenly loomed out of the shadows and begun to expand in size with ever-increasing speed.
Bée’s ants had gone up in the world and had been transformed into an enormous beast: a bull that was charging, head down, straight at the suitor’s white shirt aglow in the shadows. Bée’s most romantic sister never understood why her sweetheart had not used his jacket to strike fear into the bull.
“In that situation it would have taken ﬂashing lights like those on the R-100 to see it in the dark,” shot back Bée, who was much more down-to-earth. “Anyway, when you shake a cloth in front of a bull, it doesn’t calm him down, it excites him.”
With the bull in hot pursuit, the gentleman took to his heels and headed for the opposite side of the field without giving a thought to his girlfriend, who fortunately did not follow his example. Bée got back on the road, and like a good city girl set her sights on the next intersection, where, she figured, she could follow the fence one road down, and by retracing her steps find her gallant suitor all in one piece. She had estimated the distance to be more or less the same as that between Saint Lawrence Boulevard and Saint-Denis Street. Except that the logic governing the disposition of country roads was not the same as that ordering the streets of a big city.
She followed the field for what seemed like hours, and at the first crossroads, decided to wait for someone to come by. To navigate the dirt road Bée had removed her high heels, but had kept her silk stockings. She was found at about four in the morning by some market gardeners on their way to the Saint-Jacques market. They installed her atop their load of vegetables, and entertained themselves by teaching her a door-to-door ditty improvised just for the occasion:
For sale, a pretty girl!
Not too big, not too small!
Ten cents for her sweet eyes!
A quarter for a soft kiss!
Bée was the spitting image of the 1920s. Tall, slender, flamboyant, with narrow hips and a tomboy’s chest, she was born to wear a cloche hat and dance the Charleston. She was spirited away in her early forties by a heart murmur. But that morning she crossed the Victoria Bridge like a queen, on a cart drawn by a white horse.
“It was like Cinderella coming home, only I’d lost my Prince Charming!”
And she concluded with an unrepentant laugh:
“That’s the story of my life!”